(JTA) — The election of former cricket star Imran Khan as Pakistan’s new prime minister has raised eyebrows across the globe. He has promised a “new Pakistan,” running on a light-on-policy nationalistic anti-corruption platform.
Khan, 65, “is known for running a team of one, making impulsive decisions, contradicting himself and then using his enormous reserves of self-confidence and charisma to dig himself out,” Jeffrey Gettleman wrote in The New York Times.
Critics have questioned the legitimacy of his victory, as “the election was widely considered tainted” due to allegations of rigging and military interference. Some observers believe he could forge more functional relations with the United States and India — despite the U.S.-India-Israel nexus being reviled domestically – while others are concerned he could further isolate the country from relations with the West.
Khan has also faced long faced anti-Semitic conspiracy theories — his first wife had Jewish roots — and since becoming a more devout Muslim in recent years has talked of making Pakistan a welfare state according to Islamic tradition.
Pakistan, the world’s sixth-most populous country, has nuclear weapons and is located strategically next to India, China, Iran and Afghanistan. So what is there to make of the country’s new leader?
He was first a sports celebrity.
Khan is a former cricket star who made his debut for the Pakistani national team in 1971 at 18. Upon graduating from Oxford University in England, he rejoined the national squad team, playing from 1976 to 1992 and captaining Pakistan to victory in the 1992 Cricket World Cup. He spent much of his time in London in the 1980s and 1990s, developing a reputation as a playboy — a past he has aimed to distance himself from. Khan frequently visited London nightclubs, describing the club Tramp as his “living room.”
He has been the victim of anti-Semitic taunts.
Khan married the British socialite Jemima Goldsmith in 1995 when she was 20 and he was 42. Goldsmith is not Jewish, but has ethnic Jewish roots and recounts being “made familiar with Jewish traditions.” Khan’s Pakistani critics have long exploited her heritage to undermine his domestic political credibility. In 2013, political rivals wrote of his “Jewish connections” and spread “innuendos” about “Jewish financing.” Khan even filed a libel suit against a politician who accused him of working as an “agent of the Jewish lobby.” The railways minister, Khwaja Muhammad Asif, wrote in 2017 that “Khan’s relations with [the] Jewish lobby are no secret.”
“Imran Khan always responded to barbs about his alleged Jewish connection by saying that his ex-wife, Jemima, was brought up Anglican Christian,” Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011 and current director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute, told JTA. “I wish he had stood up to anti-Semitism, but he never did.”
Although Goldsmith converted to Islam before the pair’s marriage (she also learned Urdu and moved to Pakistan before the couple divorced), Khan’s “past marriage to a woman of Jewish descent is considered by many Pakistanis as an unforgivable stain on the energetically Islam-infused platform,” Paul Gasnier wrote in Haaretz.
He has distanced himself from his Western past.
Khan’s recent electoral victory demonstrates that Pakistanis have either looked past or accepted the blemish of his Western past — including his marriage — or that the former cricket star was able to effectively scrub it away (or that the army was always going to pick a winner).
Khan, despite his time in England, has recently dog-whistled to hardline Islamists and has been “distancing himself from his days as a star athlete and ladies’ man.” Khan has pandered to both Islamists and secularists. He has promised to create both the “type of state that was established in Medina,” referring to the Muslim city-state from the Prophet Muhammad’s time and “the country that Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah had dreamed of,” which would have been a secular democracy.
He is critical of Israel but less so than many other leaders in the Muslim world.
Khan winks abroad to both the Muslim world and the West. On Twitter, he repeatedly calls out Israeli policy toward Gaza, although in a manner more subdued than other leaders in the Muslim world, referencing “Israel’s continued oppression against Palestinians” and condemning President Donald Trump’s move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
Yet in a 2012 tweet Khan, in an apparent repudiation of anti-Semitism present in some parts of Pakistani society and perhaps with a nod to the West, showed empathy for Jewish suffering.
“Just as questioning the holocaust is painful to the Jews, & we respect this,” he wrote, “so abuse of the Prophet (PBUH) is even more painful to Muslims.”
Experts doubt he will change Pakistan’s official stance toward Israel.
In the glow of victory, Khan has made overtures toward the U.S. and India — two countries that, along with Israel, form the nexus that Pakistan’s Senate chairman once called a “major threat” to the Muslim world. While he has not directly commented on Israel, Pakistan has a history of semi-secret relations with the country despite an official boycott of the Jewish state and local derision of a supposed Zionist-Hindu conspiracy.
In 2005, then-Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom met his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Kasuri, in Istanbul, Turkey. Former military ruler Pervez Musharraf attended an American Jewish Congress dinner in New York as the guest of honor. In 2009, the head of Pakistan’s spy agency contacted Israeli officials to warn of potential attacks on Israeli targets in India. And in 2011, Israel was rumored to have exported military technology to Pakistan.
Pakistani journalist Kamran Yousaf, writing in 2018 in The Express Tribune, the country’s New York Times-affiliated newspaper, said that “Diplomacy is the art of making new friends and avoiding confrontation with countries with which you don’t have the best of relations.” Pakistan’s policy toward Israel has historically followed the Muslim world’s boycott of the Jewish state — an icy diplomatic reality that seems to be thawing.
“Proponents of that policy have now themselves embraced the change,” Yousaf wrote. “Saudi Arabia is the prime example.”
Ambassador Haqqani, however, believes that Khan will neither build upon these previous relations nor follow Saudi Arabia’s lead in thawing frozen relations with Israel.
“His political stance has been anti-Israel,” Haqqani told JTA. “He also has to take into account the fact that Islamist groups got 5 million votes in the election that got him 16 million votes. Given his own Islamic-nationalist rhetoric, I do not see Imran Khan as the man who would reach out to Israel on behalf of Pakistan. But miracles can always happen.”
Christine Fair, provost’s distinguished associate professor in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, told JTA that any opening to Israel will be the decision of the army, not Khan’s, referencing the Pakistani military’s vast power.
“To my knowledge,” she said, “there is no such interest in the army.”
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, expressed similar pessimism.
“Khan may consider himself a maverick and a bold reformer willing to go where others haven’t gone before him — such as in his pledge to eliminate corruption — but I don’t think he’ll go out of his way to reach out to Israel,” he told JTA. “Not that he’d rule out exchanges and relations, but the idea of trying to push for official relations — that’s a tall order, and I just don’t see it happening.”
Kugelman said, however, that for all the obvious political and religious differences between the two countries, they share something fundamental in common in that they are religious states.
“Pakistan’s military and civilian elites — including Khan — all have ties to the West, and when you have ties to the West, the chances are that you’ll have some type of exposure to Israel or to Jews, or both,” he said. “So none of these [previous] relations are surprising.”
“The big question is if there will ever be a Pakistani leader who tries to push for a normalized relationship with Israel. If it happens, I doubt Khan will be the one to make that push.”
Israel remains open to establishing relations with Pakistan.
The Israelis, however, appear open to establishing firmer relations. Speaking in India in 2017, Netanyahu rebuked claims that Israel’s relationship with India is in any way a threat to Pakistan.
“We are not enemies of Pakistan and Pakistan should not be our enemy either,” Netanyahu told reporters.
Daniel Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told JTA that he expects Israel to continue to seek avenues to open relations with many nations with which it has not had formal ties in the past, including Pakistan.
“Negative perceptions of Israel by some in Pakistan, and Israel’s close partnership with India, may impose some limits on what is possible,” he cautioned, however. “But that doesn’t mean quiet ties based on security cooperation or access to Israeli technology are out of the question.
“They can provide important mutual benefits even before establishing official relations is possible.”